Urban sprawl plagues Tunis

“The city of Tunis is in decay, all the solutions to solve its unpreparedness to shore up with the pace of its population growth are exhausted,” says Nabil Montassar, a Tunisian anthropologist. “I suggest that Kairouan becomes the capital, first because of its central location and its moderate proximity and nearness to most country’s governorates. Second, it is a UNESCO World Heritage [site] and an Islamic cultural Capital.”

For Montassar, a retired teacher of urban geography who taught at many universities including the University of Manouba in Tunis, such a bold statement comes out against the background of an exhausted infrastructure, acute traffic congestion during peak hours, and the very deep spatial discontinuity that characterises Tunis.

Tunis, much like most African cities, is floating in space. The city is widely flat, weakly densified, and plagued by urban sprawl, making it very hard to move from one place to another without consuming time and energy.

The city consumes a lot of unused space and the community housing rate is less than 17 percent in the country, according to Hatem Kahloon, a lecturer at the Higher Institute of Environmental Technologies and Urban Planning in Tunis. The expensive housing in the downtown area pushes people to horizontally stretch away from the city’s peripheries.

There is a lack of a comprehensive vision for designing the city and the city’s horizontal sprawling is due mainly to unsustainable and misguided urban planning, notes Kahloon. “Due to the fragmented conception upon which the city is built, city chunks emerge; they may make a city when connected together but never a connected space to move freely into.’’

In the early 1960s, Tunis’ urban identity underwent dramatic changes that have affected the city’s present landscape. When the old medieval medina’s walls were demolished the city center started to stretch away with the depopulation of medina dwellers. The movement of people into the city entailed the creation of new residential neighborhoods.

Vintage photo of Avenue du la Marine (date unknown) Copyright: J-Benna.

The city gained further space through state funded initiatives that aimed at wiping away slums and shantytowns in what was called the “degourbification” projects. The implementation of these projects entailed the relocation of slum residents to low-income real estates projects that were built on state-owned agricultural farming lands. Obviously, this came at the detriment of many agricultural lands. Today, the number of farming lands is regressing around areas like La Soukra, Sidi Daoud, La Marsa and Bahr El Azreg.

Hemmed in by the shallow lagoon of Sijoumi, the texture of the city center’s soil cannot stand more multi-storey buildings above the present ones, according to Montassar.

“What was done is enough,” he says. “The area used to be a port and can never stand further. To construct community housing buildings you have to dig deep in the ground to secure a multi-storey building which is costly.”

It is unlikely that Tunis will densify any time soon. “As long as we still have space that people can use, the city will never get densified and people will let go of any chance to build upward,” explains Montassar.

Almost 90 percent of the city’s residents hail from rural areas and are obsessed with having wider spaces in their houses, he says. “As long as the person is at ease economically and the land is available, the Tunis dweller will not live in an apartment and will never think about building a multi-storey building.”

Transport problems

Today, Tunis is unable to keep up with the pace of growth of its urban population. And, despite being diverse, the urban transport system is not sufficient for the needs of the growing populace. During peak hours, people crowd into light rail cars, trams and buses. Ironically, the light rail and buses are almost empty in off-peak hours.

Getting to the city centre is challenging and routes become quickly congested. But because of the administrative hub in la Kasbah, adjacent to the old Medina, and the centralization of many popular souks and shops in the bustling Habib Borguiba Avenue, few people can avoid the city center.

Collective taxis offer an alternative means of transport, which is typically quick and affordable, solving some of the urban commuters’ issues. But Montassar thinks the taxis are problematic. “The collective taxi phenomenon gave Tunis the peasant air. The way they block the streets and the way they drive in their own created street shortcuts and the way clients fight to get to them rendered Tunis into chaos,” he says.

With a lack of political will to address the planning legacy of the previous regime the city continues to hobble along. Despite attempts to decentralize the downtown city center and create alternative ones, the downtown area remains the one and only destination of many lower and middle class Tunisians. The creation of alternative shopping centers on the northern coast has deeply divided the masses. The shops are beyond the spending capacity of ordinary Tunisians and long-distance traveling on public transport is expensive and tiresome for poorer Tunisians.

The problem of urban sprawl remains unsolved. But with the upcoming elections, both presidential and legislative, the state’s authority may get restored and it is time for urban planners to start getting involved in shaping the vision of the future Tunis. The role of urban planners and civil society members is crucial in rebuilding a city that is not disconnected from reality.

Members of the Tunisian Urban Planners Organization (ATU) were present during the drafting of the constitution and played a leading role during the drafting of Article 7, which is about local authority.

Urban planners are hopeful that installing the local authorities system will give power to municipal delegates who will be elected as soon as elections are carried out, says Hind Hafsi president of the Tunisian Urban Planners organization.

“We are happy that we accomplished something, being present during the drafting process of Article 7,” she says. “Now this will open up more chance for people and local communities and for us urban planners to influence the decision making and give us more agency to positively impact our cities.”

Afifa Ltifi is a budding Tunisian journalist and former Tunisia Live writer. She holds a master’s degree in Cross Cultural Studies. She is a youth activist and the cofounder of the first Black rights organization in Tunisia. She is currently working as a research assistant for the Finnish led research project ‘‘Youth and Political engagement in contemporary Africa.’’ Keep in touch via twitter @AfifaFanon.

Main image: Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Copyright: Imen Hentati.




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